Missing skier: How does mountain search and rescue work?

See inside the step-by-step process ski patrollers use to find a missing skier, and the gear that helps them do it.
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Whether inbounds or out, the mountains are a big place. Thankfully, resorts and ski patrollers work hard to make getting lost a difficult thing to do. But whether it’s from an errant wrong turn, intentionally ducking a rope, veering off-trail to track down those treed-in powder stashes, or getting turned around in a whiteout, getting lost can happen. Thankfully, though, those same people that help us try to avoid the problem are around to help get us out of it, too.

Search and rescue for skiers or boarders is similar to other types of search and rescue, but it requires some unique processes and gear for rescuers to find you as quickly and safely as possible in the snow. Most searches follow the same five major steps:

1. Alert

A search and rescue always begins with a report. According to Matt Dekins, a ski patroller at Jackson Hole’s Snow King Mountain, those usually come from friends and family. “We try to gather all the little details of what to expect when we get to this person,” said Dekins, including who the missing person is, where they were last seen, what they were wearing, what they had been doing prior, as well as their medical history, potential issues, or health. After checking with lifties and other staff to make sure the person hasn’t been seen by anyone else, the search begins.

Essential Gear “Communication is huge,” said Dekins, which is why a reliable radio is so critical. Being able to communicate with people initiating the search and gathering information all across the mountain is essential to making sure everyone is on the same page.

2. Locate

The search begins in the general area where the skier or rider was last seen, with patrollers yelling and trying to get the victim’s attention, if they’re still around. “Typically, missing persons just come from a lack of communication between the person we’re looking for and the person calling it in,” said Dekins. “Nine times out of 10, they’re just down at the bar.” The search starts small to rule that out.

Once that starting area has been searched, the net widens progressively across the entire in-bounds mountain. Still nothing? Local ski patrol gets more people involved, including local police and search and rescue. An “incident command” is set up to facilitate the different agencies and authorities in working together to broaden the search.

Essential Gear According to Dekins, a rescuer’s ability to keep their hands free during a search is vital to getting it resolved rapidly, which is why he likes the Team Wendy M-216 Ski SAR helmet. When he’s balancing medical equipment, an avalanche beacon, flashlights, and the like, having the ability to mount head lamps, night vision or thermal optics devices, cameras, and more right to the helmet is just one less thing to focus on, he says. “I can easily throw on my headlamp and I don’t need to worry about it,” said Dekins.

The Team Wendy M-216 Ski SAR helmet hosts variety of tools to assist in Search and Rescue. 

The Team Wendy M-216 Ski SAR helmet hosts variety of tools to assist in Search and Rescue. 

3. Access

Once the missing person has been located, rescuers jump into assessing their state and determining what they need to do. Performing triage and asking the skier who they are, their location, and the time or date can help rescuers determine if there’s a head injury. If there’s any type of mechanism of injury (“MOI” in rescuer-speak), they’ll start assessing the patient from head to toe. Do they need a toboggan or other materials? Now is the time to figure out the plan.

Essential Gear Dekins wears a vest like the Dakine Poacher R.A.S. to keep the essentials handy. “It has every single pocket I would need for my shovel, beacon and probe, skins, you name it.”

4. Stabilize

After establishing what’s wrong with the skier or boarder, rescuers work to stabilize them enough that they can be transported off the mountain. This is where Dekins’s medical training comes in – being careful of the person’s neck and back, they are carefully placed on a sled.

Essential Gear Dekins carries a lot of medical gear for these situations, but for the everyday skier, a first aid kit like the Adventure Medical Kits Day Tripper will have enough of what they need to get down to the base.

5. Transport

Getting down the mountain with a potentially immobile person on a sled can be tricky. Dekins says it needs a minimum of three patrollers: One person clearing the way, one person “driving” and steering in front of the sled, and one person “tailroping” and controlling speed off the back. At the bottom, the patient is passed off to a waiting ambulance for more thorough medical treatment.

Essential Gear A good set of skis is important for controlling a heavy sled, and it’s crucial that they be versatile enough to manage the conditions of the day without problem. Dekins typically skis a pair of Faction Candide 3.0s (they’re “wide and sturdy”) with Marker Lord bindings (for quick boot adjustments) and Salomon MTN Explore boots. 



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